This has been the driest summer in upstate since, well, since Dannys whole life. He sits on the front stoop, poking a stick into the ground. First, he makes puffs of dust, like a steam engine. His dark head bends over the light-brown dirt. He digs deeper, trying to split open the earth, as if he could crawl into it and hide. Hes waiting for his turn with Pa.
Pa had shooed Danny away from the door, his face tight. "Find your brother and stay out here while I talk to your sister. Go on, get."
Danny cant find Ralph. Sure Ill get a licking for that too, he thinks. Where is that boy? Trouble, thats what he is. Ralphs only two years younger, nearly six, but Danny seems to get the lickings for both of them. Danny squints up the black road that slashes across their yellow fields. Sometimes he and Ralph trudge along the shoulder to the creek just past the row of pines. They kick rocks at the shiny Fords and Studebakers zooming by. But today the road lies there, quiet. Not even Ralph would go to the creek alone.
Danny hears Pas voice rumble from the front room. He cant make out the words. And Paulas not saying anything back, for once.
Danny smells the fingers on his right hand; they smack of strawberries. He and Paula came in from the garden when Pa called. Most of the berries were still white and hard; their seeds pricked Dannys fingers. He can never wait until they ripen. If Danny had his druthers, theyd grow only strawberries. But his sister tends straight lines of beans and peppers and peas too. Pa makes her. Her red head bobs up and down with weeding.
Suppertime she piles green beans onto Dannys plate. "If Ive got to pick them, youve got to eat them." Danny sticks out his tongue at her when Pas not looking.
Paula suddenly bawls out. Whats she crying about now? Not like Pa even smacked her. Girls. Cry about anything. And shes a full two years older than he is. Youd think shed be all cried out after Momma died. Danny cant even remember crying then. Just felt like he was hollow. Like the tin cans he and Ralph shoot off the fence that clang onto the ground, empty.
Two harvests ago the maple out back had turned deep red. Momma had picked the last corn and carried a bucket of it out to the horse. She cut her leg on a metal strip near the barn. She washed it out under the pump, wrapped a cloth soaked in iodine around it. But her leg puffed up. The color drained from her face and Momma went sick. She lay upstairs. A sound filled the houselike an engine, whining and groaning. It went on for days. They didnt realize it was Momma. Such a sound couldnt possibly come from her.
"Im taking you to the doctors, Emma!" Pas voice always sounds like an order, even when he offers kindness. But Momma was firm in her own way. The cost of a doctor would set them back too much. She stayed upstairs.
They went tiptoeing through chores all week.
Then one morning Pa wrapped up Momma in the blue-and-yellow Indian blanket. He lifted her onto the back of the red pick-up to take her to Doctor Little over in Hormel. Pas jaw was set like he was about to holler. Like when the two boys had scared the sheep so much they panicked and crushed two of their own lambs. He latched the makeshift plywood door.
Pa tucked the blanket around Momma. Her face peered out stark white. Her dark eyes locked on her three children from the back of the truck as it rattled away.
Pa isnt a big man, but he can haul logs and flip a ewe onto her back. Momma used to laugh and say, "Paul, youre my Gary Cooper, only a little smarter and stronger." Shed squeeze Pas arm. Danny cant remember if Momma was beautiful like a movie star, but he remembers her hands. They could hammer together a wagon or fold bread dough like a warm blanket.
Danny, Ralph, and Paula had watched out the front room window, waiting, all day. Finally, the orange sun pulled darkness over the fields. The pick-ups round lights bumped back up the dirt drive. There was just Pa. He stopped the truck. Then he slumped over like he was praying, the way Momma had taught them. But in all the Sundays Pa dragged their hind-ends to church, Danny had never seen him bow his head.
Now Pas hollering for Ralph out the back window, so loud that his voice bounces off the barn side like a retort. Then a clatter, a thump, and the chickens out back, squawking and complaining. "Coming, Pa!"
Ralph comes skittering down the path toward the house, the dust billowing behind him. He laughs when he sees Danny.
No doubt about it: Ralphs been messing with the coop. There had better be some eggs when Paula goes to collect them later. Sure, shes a girl, but she stands up for Danny against Pa. And she remembers Momma best of all of them.
Sometimes it seems like she tries to be Momma. She wraps their sandwiches in wax paper for school. She even licks her fingers and tries to wipe their faces. Danny tells her shes acting too big for her britches, big shot. But at night he lets her tuck Ralph and him in. And she reads them chapters out of Fairy Tales for Good Girls and Boys.
"Not that youre good. But its all we got," Paula tells them.
The aunts used to click their tongues and say, "Those children run around as filthy as dirt, but Emma drops everything to read them a book." Guess Paulas filling in that way too.
Ralph scoots down next to him on the stoop and winks. Hes almost six and can already wink better than Danny can. That boy was born lucky. They listen to Paula still crying. Her feet clump up the steps to the room they share in the corner of the eaves.
Ralph leans so close that Danny can smell his hot breath. Hes grinning, like he wants to share a secret. Danny could smack those baby teeth right out of his jaw.
"Pa is going to tan your hide good," Danny tells him.
The front screen door slaps shut. Pa heaves his body down next to them. He looks at the boys. Dannys scared to look back at him, but he can hear Pa popping his knuckles. He always has to be moving something in him. His left forearm looks burnt brown from hanging out the truck window. The sun slants right into Pas eyes. He grimaces.
"I got bad news and Im just going to come right out and tell it to you." Pa looks at his hands. He scrapes at a callus with his thumbnail. "Aunt Dees going to take in your sister. She and your Grandma Lewis dont think its right, Paula out here. I guess I agree. I cant raise a girl anymore. Dont know anything about that and Paulas getting to be too big. Almost a woman."
Pa waits. Danny can hear Ralphs breath quicken. Waves of heat rise off the black road; they blur the line of pine trees across the field. Danny holds his stick still. He does not turn to Pa.
"You boys better go inside and say good-bye. Paulas upstairs packing. Aunt Deell be along shortly."
Ralphs body starts shaking. Danny looks over at him. His face has twisted up, a wrung cloth, all red. "But, Pa!"
Danny has nothing to say.
Pa stands up. "Im sorry, boys. Lifes hard. Get used to it." He steps down off the porch. His feet crunch on the path up to the truck.
Danny sits very still. His head, his arms and legsthey feel so heavy. The stick weighs down on his hand. He feels the bark press into his palm. He wishes the stick were a gun. He could shoot Pa from here; aim the sight at his shape moving away from them. One shot. Pa would topple right over.
Ralph presses against him. Danny pushes him off. He cant stand to be touched right now. All sound seems to have been snuffed out: he cannot hear Paula crying upstairs. No birds clicking and chirping. Not even his brother sobbing beside him.
The stillness suffocates him. He pushes up off the stoop and the hill pulls him, walking, running, down to the road. Dust swirls up. The grit stings his eyes. He walks along the shoulder, away from the house. The fields stretch out beyond the road, flat and unchanging. Danny keeps walking, heading past the pines and toward the creek.
"Danny! Danny!" Ralph voice cuts the silence. He hears the tumble of Ralphs feet down the slope. Danny crosses the road away from him, not even looking. He wedges his hands into his front pockets, feels the chafe of denim, and steals a glance over his shoulder. Ralph looks at him across the gulf of black pavement. Tears stream down his cheeks. "Where you going?" Whining like a little baby. Danny squares his shoulders. His feet press against the dirt, pushing him away faster.
Maybe a car will rush past. Danny edges close to the road so that he can feel the wind blow by when it does. He thinks about sticking out his thumb. "Where you going, boy?" the man behind the wheel will ask him.
"I dont know," Danny will answer, feeling stupid. But no cars come charging toward him from the horizon. He follows the dirt road that bends off toward the creek.
He climbs over the gate with "No Trespassing" posted on it. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. The dirt road peters out into pebbles and grass. The air hangs a trace heavier here; it smells of wet and mold. The pebbles prickle Dannys feet. The small pain feels good.
Danny looks for larger rocks to step on. Usually, he, Paula, and Ralph search for flat stones, skipping stones. His fingers find a shard, shaped like an arrowhead. He turns the point toward his forearm and scrapes it along his white, inner skin. A jagged line of red springs to the surface.
In late spring the water had gushed over the rocks. Today it trickles. A sharp ledge rises high above a hollow where the water pools up. Last year the pool had filled up so high that Ralph and Danny could not stand in the center with their heads above water. They bobbed above the surface, their toes searching under water for firm ground. Ralph climbed to the top ledge on a dare. He laughed down at them. "Betcha I can!"
"Get your hind end down here," called Paula.
Ralph had jumped, arms flailing, legs running in mid-air. He screamed all the way down and hit the black center of the water. The spray seemed to suck him under. When he didnt come up Danny ran in, clothes and all. The sound swallowed up. He looked through the murkiness. His brother hung in the brown water, legs and arms limp. Danny reached for his foot. Ralph jerked, lifted his head, laughed, and kicked off. When Danny finally caught him he pounded Ralphs face until both eyes were purple and black.
But today the pool surface, usually broad and flat, looks shrunken and angry. Danny pulls his T-shirt over his head and steps out of his jeans and underwear. He balls them up and throws them onto a nearby boulder. He walks into the water, picking his way. The water inches above his ankles, then his thighs. He cups his hand over his privates. The water streams through his fingers, gripping his loins with cold.
What was Pa thinking, letting Aunt Dee take Paula away from them? Doesnt she have enough daughters of her own? Cow-like girls who hunch over, sewing, in the sitting room that theyve booby-trapped with glass figurines. Let her find somebody else, that old witch. Danny wades into the deepest part of the pool. His stomach shrinks from the chill of the water. He and Paula and Ralph are doing OK. They take care of themselves, even when Pa isnt around much. They get themselves to school, dont they? They eat what theyre told.
Danny crouches down, drawing himself into a small curl. Maybe Pa will take out the kerosene lamp, if it gets late enough, and come for Danny. But he probably wont bother. Pa has a way of letting things go. Like how the wind steals through the tarpaper upstairs because Pa hasnt finished putting up the clapboards. Mornings he goes out with the tractor and cuts just enough hay for the horse and cows and a little to sell. Then, as soon as he can, he heads into the pines with his rifle to shoot small game. Evenings, once they clear the dishes, Pa takes the truck over to Belmonta three-house town in the other direction. Thats where he plays cards.
Danny leans his head back. The sky tips into view. By now Aunt Dees old Ford will be pulling up the drive. Danny cant think what hed say to Paula if he were there. Sure, her feelings will be hurt. But he cant bear to see her face lopsided with crying. Doesnt want to see Aunt Dee walking through the house, the way she does. "Look at this place, Paul. The curtain half torn off and I dont believe that coffee pots ever been washed."
"No sense doing that," Pa would say. "Make more coffee tomorrow."
Danny stands up and wades to the side. His body has gotten taut this year, a growth spurt. He pulls on his jeans and climbs up. The edges of granite scrape his palms and feet. Finally, he hoists himself onto the flat ledge that juts out over the creek and shuffles forward so that his toes hang over the edge. They look huge against the rocks at the bottom of the creek, like a giants. "I will destroy all of you!" he cries out. The frightened townspeople run away from his huge, crushing feet. He hurls stones at them. "Pshkew! Pshkew!"
Danny watches the pebbles glance off the rocks below. Shadows have reached across the hollow. Maybe, if he can make up for Pa, Grandma Lewis and Aunt Dee will change their minds. He could get a job pulling weeds or hauling manure. Danny almost smiles to himself. Not Ralphhell be running into the woods or jumping out of the barn loft and breaking his fool neck.
"Boys, nothing but trouble." He has heard Aunt Dee say this more than once. And the fact settles in his mind: No one cares if Pa goes into town and he and Ralph must make their days, the two of them, around the empty fields and the unfinished house. And the garden. Surely it will shrivel up without Paula to tend it.
Danny closes his eyes. A breeze picks up over the ledge, brushing Dannys wet skin. He sways slightly. He knows he must do something. The answer takes shape in his mind. He peers through his eyelashes down to the rocks. They glisten, even in the shadow. Then he clenches his eyes tight, swings out his arms, and leaps.
The red sun hovers at the edge of the fields. A black Ford sedan, corroded with rust, sits at the base of the driveway. The house, dingy white and black, squats on the top of the hill; squares of light cut through the dusk. Inside, a chair scrapes the plank floors.
"And you boys can come out next month to visit your sister."
"Speak up, boy."
The voice quivers, "Yes, maam."
The woman rises up from the stool. Shes tall and knobbyyoure aware of how her bones fit together. She crosses her arms and tries to fix Paul with her eyes, but he wont give her satisfaction. He leans forward in the faded easy chair, running a jackknife blade under his fingernails.
"Well, Paul, I cant wait all night for him," she says.
"Suit yourself, Dee."
She turns to the girl, Paula, standing in the corner. "Come on, dear. Jeans cleaned out half of her room. You can turn in as soon as we get home." She looks at Ralph sitting cross-legged on the floor, unraveling a thread from the skirt around Pauls chair. "Sure I cant fix something up for you and the boys? Only take a minute."
Paul takes a partly used cigarette out of his front pocket. He tamps the filter end of it against the armrest. "If you want to cook something, go right ahead."
Paula holds the end of a pillowcase stuffed with her clothes. She favors her father, the same broad forehead and spray of freckles. Tearstains track down her swollen face. She bounces the pillowcase off one leg to the other. Her voice comes out, hoarse: "Pa, arent you going to go get Danny?"
He shakes his head. "Dont fret. Hes stubborn, but hes not stupid. Hell get himself home." Paula pushes her jaw forward. "Cant you look for him?"
Dee touches her arm. "Help me in the kitchen, dear. Leave your pa. I expect hell head out soon enough to find your brother." Dee arches her eyebrows in his direction.
"Ill help you look!" Ralph gives the string a final tug and it snaps off the chair skirt.
Paul stands up. "Thats enough, boy. Go make yourself useful." Then he steps out onto the porch. Even in the darkness, heat presses down from the day. The cicadas buzz. Paul pulls a match out of his shirt pocket and flicks it under his thumbnail. His face lowers into the small light as he draws on the stub of cigarette. A distant engine rattles the silence and headlights roll over the horizon toward the house. Paul watches them bend away into taillights, the sound fading.
Emma, now PaulaPaul feels his life unspooling. What now, Emma? He thinks of her sitting on the running board of the truck next to him, the day they got married, and his truck brand new. "I think youre glad you got both me and the new truck, Paul. Id hate to imagine if you had to choose." Emma would have kept her dark eyes on him. "Youve got to take better care of our babies."
When the children were small hed bring home live rabbits and chipmunks for them after hunting. Emma would fix up a cage. Theyd poke greens through the wire for the animals to nibble. He could count on Emma to fix up anything. Dying was the only thing she did that took him by surprise.
Paul shakes his head. This is womans work, raising children. When Dee spoke to him about Paula he felt a weight lift off. Felt he had nothing to give his girl and that she would be needing things soon. The boys, well, hadnt he grown up tough too? He keeps them fed and takes them to church.
Paul decides hell head to the creek in the morning. Spending a night out in the summer wont hurt the boy. The cigarette sputters. He flicks it to the ground. A scuffling at the bottom of the hill catches Pauls ear. He peers into the darkness and sees movement across the road. A dark shape stumbles along the shoulder, like a deer whose back legs been glanced by buckshot. Paul steps carefully down the hill, eyeing the shape. A man. No, a boy. He calls out.
"Is that you, son?"
Another shuffle. Then, "Yessir."
Paul nears the edge of the road. He sees the boy more clearly now, sees how he crouches down for each step, then stretches forward, dragging his foot along.
Paul stands on the shoulder and watches his son cross the pavement toward him. The boy wears no shirt, only jeans. His face and torso glow pale in the dim light. His right arm wraps around in front, holding his left ribs. As his son gets closer Paul can see that the boys left arm and chest have been scraped raw and his pant legs are soaked and ripped badly. From the way Danny hobbles, Paul can tell hes twisted an ankle. Maybe worse.
Pauls voice lowers. "Well. Look at you."
"Thats what you get, running off like that." Paul holds out his hand to support Danny under his arm. The boy flinches away.
"I can do it," he says.
Paul takes in his breath through his teeth. He wants to hold him, make sure the boys all right. He also wants to shake him until his head yanks back and forth. Paul pushes his hands into his pockets, not knowing what to do with them. That boy can be so goddamned thickheaded.
"Fine. Then get yourself up to the house. Paula and your Aunt Dee are still here, making supper." Paul walks behind Danny up the hill. He watches his son step on the outer edge of his right foot, careful not to put weight on it.
"I ought to whip your hide," Paul says.
Danny stops and turns back to his father. His eyes, usually dark and scared, have gone hard. It makes Paul think of the small animals he finds in traps. When he sees that look, he knows to knock the animal out before it hurts him. But the boy is still small enough, he thinks, I can lick some sense into him.
"Do it after they leave, Pa" Danny says evenly. He steps slowly up onto the porch. Paul reaches forward and pushes the door open for him. He calls into the house, "hes home."
"Whooeee!" Ralph yelps from upstairs. He tramples down the steps and into the hallway. He breaks into a smile. "Whoa! Danny, what happened to you? You get hit by a car or something?" He flutters around his brother. "Boy, Pa was steaming! Bet youre in big trouble, huh?" Ralph circles into the kitchen. "Hes here! Hes here!"
"Danny?" Aunt Dee steps into the doorway, wiping her hands on a dishcloth. "Oh, you." She calls back to the kitchen, "Paula, get some water. Weve got to clean him up." The two boys stand staring at Dee, Ralph jiggling his legs. She shoos him away with her hands. "You, go fetch the iodine. Danny, come in and put your leg up." She looks around for Paul. "Now, whered your pa go? Out back with the truck again, I suppose."
"Ooh. Iodines going to hurt, isnt it, Danny?" Ralph scrootches up his face before he clambers upstairs.
Danny limps into the kitchen and lowers himself onto the bench alongside the wood table. He can hear Paula pump the water outside. The handle squeaks and water gasps into the bucket. Aunt Dee pulls a clean dishcloth out of the drawer. She spreads it out next to him, as if she is ironing. Her head shakes back and forth, but her hair doesnt move, its pulled back so tightly.
"You gave us such a scare. Boys! No concern about anyone else, just thinking about themselves." She bends closer to look at Dannys chest. Her hand hovers over the wounds, not daring to touch them. "Paula? Wheres that water?" Paula pushes open the door with her back, grasping the full bucket with both hands. Her face flushes when she sees Danny. She sets the bucket on the table without saying anything.
"Why dont you help your brother. Ill finish up supper." Aunt Dee goes over to the stove, frowns into the pot, and stirs it. "These green beans need something."
"Green beans!" Paula mouths the words and sticks her tongue out at Danny. He smiles back, weakly. She sits down across from him and dips the cloth into the bucket. Her red, puffy face makes her eyes look smaller and bluer. "Well, too bad. Im still here. You didnt miss me after all."
"I didnt mean to," he says.
Paula looks at the gashes across his body. "What happened?"
Paula squeezes the soapy water out of the cloth. She presses it gently against the wide scrape on Dannys arm. It burns and he winces. "You are so dumb sometimes," she says. She dips the cloth back in the bucket. "Anyway, Aunt Dee says you and Ralph can come out and visit me next month." She presses the cloth against his chest. The water rolls down his stomach, a knife of coolness. She leans in. "And if you dont come out to see me I will whop you."
"Paula! Young ladies dont speak like that!" Aunt Dees voice rises above the bubbling on the stove.
Danny leans forward to whisper in her ear. Her hair brushes his mouth. "Youll be a sissy girl by then," he says. Paula pinches his good arm. It leaves a bright, pink mark.
"Aunt Dee, I got the iodine!" Ralph carries the bottle in with both hands, afraid to drop it. "Can I watch you put it on him?"
"What a question! No, you can go call your father for supper." Aunt Dee nods toward the bottle. "Paula?" Paula takes out another cloth and tilts the bottle against it. An orange spot appears in the center and spreads out into a yellow circle. The smell invades Dannys nose and eyes. He braces himself. Paula goes to dab his arm and he pulls away.
Aunt Dee looks over at them from the stove. "Close your eyes, dear," she says. "Watching only makes it worse. Close your eyes and think of something nice. Paula, why dont you wash out those cuts a little more."
Danny shuts his eyes. He hears the water dripping back into the bucket. His aunt sings tunelessly while the metal skillet bangs against the burner. Ralph calls out back for Pa. A memory flickers through Danny. Bread and humming and the salt and warmth in her fold of neck. A flickering light, it trucks down the highway, away, until it becomes so small he can no longer tell if it existed at all.
He returns to what he knows. The hot pain burning from his skin. The way his muscles tighten against obstacles: rocks, his brother, Pa. And how the fear left him as he stood on the ledge. He heard the water tumble against the rocks and breathed in the hint of wetness and the dusty taste of the fields. The breeze lifted his hair. An idea came to him then, one that made him feel light, almost weightless. He did not pray for his mother to return. This, he knew, was too much to ask. No, he would ask for something smaller, more ordinary. And he would help because God helps those who help themselves.
Danny bent his knees, imagining himself falling, flying into nothing. No feeling, no touch, no hurt, no memory. Just enfolding him into darkness and carrying him to her.
Then he flung himself, out, into the emptiness. And, for a shimmering moment, he felt free.
"Did it hurt?"
Danny opens his eyes. Ralph stands next to him balancing on one leg, the other crooked up underneath. His dirt-streaked face hovers inches away, his eyes fixed on Danny, as if to weigh every word of his answer. "Did it hurt?"
There is nobody else for Ralph. Not Paul or Momma, or Aunt Dee, not God or even Paula. No little kid should feel that lonely.
"Nah, it didnt hurt, much," Danny says. He spits into his hand and rubs a clean swath across Ralphs cheek. "Go on and wash your face."